nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 25, 2006
Of the many, many indelible images conjured in Alan Berks's lovely solo play, my favorite is definitely the one of our narrator, perched on a mountaintop high above the old city of Jerusalem, reading Konstantin Stanislavsky's An Actor Prepares to a group of goats.
Now, if that hasn't made you curious enough to buy a ticket to this play, whose title is indeed Goats, then allow me to further tantalize you with the news that this is one of the smartest, warmest, funniest, and wisest new works I've seen in some time; that the bare-bones but very careful production from The Production Company, staged by artistic director Mark Armstrong, is spectacularly effective; and that the hard-working actor on stage, Michael Szeles ("Say-lesh"), is giving a superb, touching, and quite remarkable performance. Goats is a find, for all of these reasons, but perhaps especially because playwright Berks opens his formidable soul in this piece and takes his audience to so many extraordinary places they've never been before.
Places like a rabbi's office in a building near Mount Olive, where our young protagonist is "recruited" to become a more devout Jew (he starts to balk when he notices a photo of the rabbi embracing Steven Spielberg). Or a remote village somewhere in France, where an experiment in local color turns disastrous when our hero gets terribly drunk on whiskey. Or a Greek island, a few weeks after tourist season, in the middle of a torrential downpour, where this young man, trying to play backgammon with his girlfriend, realizes that their relationship may be nearing its end.
We never learn the name of the character at the center of Goats (we do find out his Hebrew name is Avraham), but the playwright tells us in his program bio that this story is true, so let's assume that he's a version of Berks himself. The story begins with his first trip to Jerusalem, when he was 22 years old, during which he had the aforementioned encounter with the rabbi who was Spielberg's pal. Detours to Europe span the next year or so, until the assassination of Yitzak Rabin, which draws this young man back to Israel, ostensibly just to earn money for a few months working at a kibbutz, with the eventual goal of bumming around Southeast Asia for a while.
But he never gets to Southeast Asia; his request for solitary employment results in his assignment to a remote farm run by a mystical old man named Shy who says he's more than 2700 years old, and who raises goats from whose milk he makes what we're told is the best cheese in the world. (The cheese is so famous, the narrator tells us with some wonderment, that Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel have both been to the cave where Shy sells it.) And so this young intellectual Jewish American actor-wannabe takes a job as—a goatherd.
The stories are, by turns, hilarious, astonishing, and awe-inspiring. We meet two ex-soldiers from the Israeli army who like to hang around the farm and get stoned, from whom the narrator learns much about the seething hatreds that fuel the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We meet stubborn goats who won't go where they're supposed to, who teach him still more about sheer wanton anger. We hear about Shy's mercurial and often enigmatic ways—that he only sells his cheese on Saturdays to spite the Orthodox Jews; that he talks "like Yoda" in koans that advise his young helper to "cook with love" and "think like a goat."
One is bound to learn something from an experience as singular as this, especially someone as eager and open-hearted as Berks seems to be. He puts some of the life lessons he acquired into gentle yet profound perspective as Goats reaches its conclusion. These truths—about acceptance, about self-knowledge, about authentic faith (in nature and in yourself more than in a supreme being)—feel especially resonant. Maybe we all need to spend some time herding goats, at least metaphorical ones.
Szeles, who embodies Berks's alter ego with what feels like eerie precision, gives a magnificent performance in this marathon role. He speaks Berks's vivid text beautifully, and together the two men evoke scene after scene in our mind's eye, even though Armstrong's spare production uses the meagerest of sets (a couple of strategically placed, well-designed rocks, courtesy of Erica Hemminger) and perhaps a dozen lighting instruments (meticulously arranged by Stacey Boggs). Jessica Gaffney's costume design and Emily Wright's evocative sound complete the environment, along with a few well-chosen props (such as a copy of the Stanislavsky book). This is indie theatre at its very best.
Goats is enlightening, uplifting, and very entertaining. For me, it's an introduction to the work of playwright Berks, whose next plays I will eagerly look forward to, and that of the just two-year-old Production Company, about whom ditto. I've already seen Szeles a few times on stage, and he's always impressed me; if the right people see him here, he could be headed for the breakthrough he richly deserves.